SIT’s CONTACT Programme: Where South Asia lives and learns together

The SIT Graduate Institute’s annual CONTACT programme in Nepal is a platform for people from across South Asia to bond with and learn from each other.

It was the 16th of December when I landed in Delhi from Nepal. On seeing news about the dastardly killing of innocent school children in Peshawar, I wondered how my identity as a South Asian had undergone immense transformation during the past two weeks as a participant of The SIT Graduate Institute’s CONTACT (Conflict Transformation Across Cultures) programme in Kathmandu. I suddenly became more sensitive to my identity as a South Asian, pained at what was happening to my region.
The nature of the attack in Peshawar shook me, since it was only a day before that I parted ways with my South Asian friends, pledging to work in solidarity for peace. My arrival from Nepal and this news reaffirmed the fact that there was a long way to go before South Asia could achieve peace, harmony, development, justice, and other ideals that we had been deliberating over the past two weeks.
SIT’s (School for International Training) South Asia programme in Kathmandu, aptly titled CONTACT, was a unique opportunity for South Asians to experience and live through multiculturalism, friendships, and cross-country bonding over a period of two weeks in residence. The programme brought together over 40 participants from the South Asian region for a professional training in peace-building and conflict resolution. Since the past five years, the institute has been conducting this programme in Nepal (perceived as a neutral venue for South Asians to meet and interact with each other).
The training module this year comprised of courses in peace-building, conflict resolution, peace mediation, arts and peace-building, memories of war and the use of theatre to convey intricacies related to conflict and peace. Taught by expert faculty, participants hailed from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet.
CONTACT participants 2014. Picture by: Julie Orfirer

After the Peshwar attack, the hashtag #IndiawithPakistan gained momentum on social media. Through this, it was heartening to witness a culmination of what I learnt over the past two weeks. That India and Pakistan along with the entire region stood united in wake of this attack was something that I personally experienced. There was an outpouring of solidarity notes and messages from friends in the region. In this tragedy, we stood more committed in our belief to combat extremist ideologies in each of our countries to realize the vision built for the region during the programme.
Year by year, CONTACT offers a unique experience for South Asians who probably have limited opportunities of connecting and communicating with each other. Students, activists, media professionals, lawyers, academics, NGO professionals, freelancers, and researchers are among those who participate in this melting pot kind of experience. For many, it is the first time that they meet someone from a country other than their own in the region. That first impression, the first meeting paves way for everlasting friendships.
This year’s CONTACT programme provided for a unique blend of arts and peace-building. With a noted theatre teacher and an artist as facilitators, participants employed their creative skills to carve expressions of peace and conflict in their respective communities and countries. Sessions on conflict mapping, conflict analysis, strategizing a non-violent advocacy movement, free whiling sharing sessions on participant’s own experiences of conflict, role play exercises in peace mediation, building art collages to symbolize conflict and peace, and showcasing documentaries and videos from conflict zones around the world were part of the programme. Guest sessions included perspective building on media’s role in conflict.
Apart from a flurry of intellectual engagements, the CONTACT programme let participants soak in cultural experiences, pursue informal discussions on relevant socio-political issues, build bonds over song, dance and cultural presentations and connect to each other as part of group activities. Perspective building emerged as an important part of the programme since there were differences, debates, discussions and several contentions put forward. The shared vision though was of peace as imperative for South Asia’s development, peace that belongs to people and is not hostage to political elites and power.

By the end of the programme, participants began questioning deeply entrenched stereotypes, narrow versions of nationalism to develop a holistic understanding of complex issues that plague the region. On the final day, participants watched a recorded version of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with Indians cheering for Malala and Pakistanis for Satyarthi.
CONTACT was a perfect opportunity for South Asians to live and learn together, transcending barriers of nationality, language, race and religion. It foregrounded an innovative blend of theory and practice in peace and conflict studies, from which every participant could take back something meaningful to their own conflicts in their own communities. Conflicts in South Asia are complex. South Asians can unravel, simplify and learn to manage conflicts by getting to meet, know, and talk. An experiential learning process made a concept as complicated as conflict interesting for CONTACT participants. At the end of two weeks of learning, give and take, experience; participants utilized an integration day to share, reflect, capitalize and network for future prospects in the field.
In the midst of hectic sessions, participants also explored local Nepalese culture and cuisine, busy markets, landmark monuments probably knowing that meeting again and spending time like this would be a distant dream. Filled with emotional, intellectual and hands-on skills, I grew to be a more sensitive human being in those two weeks of cross cultural interaction and imbibed a completely different meaning of peace. Peace is essential, desirable and achievable. Peace is team work and collaboration. Peace is acceptance and friendship. In a region afflicted by conflicts of grave consequences, this kind of CONTACT can go a long way in strengthening South Asia’s resolve to successfully confront challenges in the region.


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